Notes for native English speakers: speaking English in an international context

Specialist topics

June 15, 2020

With English firmly established as an international language for business and industry, native speakers can feel grateful for their privileged ease of communication. But the increasing quality of English spoken as a second language does not mean the issue of communication is solved. Second language speakers have made their contribution, but there is more that native speakers could be doing to improve the quality of communication. Let’s look at some simple steps native speakers should take to make themselves more easily understood in international working environments.

Slow down

The first piece of advice for native speakers is obvious – slow down. This is a basic courtesy that gives the audience a better chance to hear each word and to keep up. However, another important benefit is to give the native speaker a little more mental capacity to choose their words carefully.

And keep it simple

With more time to think, a native speaker can reduce the number of words they use and focus on clearly delivering the ones with the most meaning. For example, a very important area of speech is the start of a sentence, where native speakers sometimes make several false starts to their message. “Why don’t we… Umm, do you want to… Maybe go to lunch now?” This kind of speech is charming when Hugh Grant does it in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral but is useless in real life. Of all those words, the only important ones are at the very end!

There is value in putting one or two unimportant words at the start of a sentence to warn the other person that a message is coming, but try to use the person’s name or something neutral like, “Okay, do you want lunch?”

Similarly, native speakers should reduce unnecessary information and get straight to the point. “Excuse me, where is the printer?” is much better than “Hi, I’m trying to print the cover sheet for my TPS Report and I can’t find the printer?” Worst of all would be a confusing negative: “You don’t know where the printer is, do you?” Imagine processing that in a second language.

Choose simple, standard English

It’s obvious but worth stating that people from elsewhere around the world will not be familiar with local slang, word plays or joke names for things. They will have been taught standard words and straightforward sentence structures, so those are what you should try to use. Another point to remember is that American English names for things are usually more widely known than those from other native forms of the language. For example, thanks to computers, people worldwide know the word ‘trash’ much more commonly than ‘rubbish’, ‘garbage’ or ‘litter’.

Spell out acronyms

The world of business relies on hundreds of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Within each country or technical subject the important ones are well known, but people from elsewhere will not be familiar with them. They might have read about an organisation many times, for example, but may have never heard its acronym pronounced rapidly by a native speaker. And it is always hard to recognise letters in the middle of normal speech in a second language. It only takes two seconds to say the names in full the first time to give everyone the best chance to follow.

Avoid idioms

An idiom is a phrase with a meaning that is not clear from the words themselves. Idioms add humour and personality to a conversation, and most native speakers understand easily, but they will confuse people with less experience. To give native speakers a taste of their own medicine so they can see what I’m getting at, idioms will spice up a run-of-the-mill conversation, but while old hands take them in their stride they can really muddy the water for punters who are still wet behind the ears. Those sentences had the same meaning, but one was in standard English and the other was built almost entirely of idioms. It also illustrates that one idiom in a sentence might not be too bad, but they quickly create a confusing mix of metaphors.

Phrasal verbs

These might be the most challenging thing to avoid using in an international context. A phrasal verb is a phrase that commonly substitutes for a standard English verb. They are very commonly used, but they often camouflage the real meaning. For example, if you say ‘Let’s get down to work’ when what you really mean is ‘Let’s start work’ your colleagues might be wasting a second’s mental energy wondering what they will get, or whether they should be looking down. Don’t fool yourself that you are helping your audience to learn ‘real English’. Give them a break – speaking a second language is tiring and they probably just want to get to the end of the day.

The final few tips in this article are more difficult and making these improvements will take some conscious effort by native speakers, but it is only fair given the amount of effort already made by second-language speakers. To reiterate, this is the big benefit of slowing down: to give yourself the scope to adjust and improve how you communicate. And don’t worry that you will become boring by taking these steps. A native speaker using dramatic and colourful language may seem highly entertaining, but one who is actually understood will build better relationships and produce much more benefit for themselves and their colleagues.

This article was written by Jeremy Gordon for Thomas Thor.

With 16 years of communication experience in the international nuclear industry, Jeremy supports clients who want to humanise nuclear energy and improve its public image so that it can play a full role in human development and environmental protection.

Jeremy Gordon
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